Howell Theatre

141 S. Third Street,
Smithfield, NC 27577

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Howell Theatre

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The Howell Theatre was built in 1935 by Rudolph Howell. A second screen was added in the 1970’s. In 1986, two more screens were added.

Contributed by Lost Memory

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Lost Memory
Lost Memory on February 19, 2007 at 5:05 pm

This is the website for the Howell Theater.

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on February 19, 2007 at 9:01 pm

Here is a 5/30/2002 aricle about the Howell Theater.

“Old Movie Theater Survives in Johnston County, N.C.

By Adrienne Lu, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

May 30—SMITHFIELD, N.C.—When the Howell Theatre opened in 1935, audiences for cowboy-and-Indian movies packed its 800 seats on Friday and Saturday nights.

Tickets cost 30 cents for adults and 15 cents for children; hot popcorn or two bags of peanuts went for a nickel. Air conditioning had been invented but wouldn’t come to the theater for several more years.

By the 1970s, the Howell would be among four drive-ins and seven indoor theaters in Johnston County.

But today, the Howell is the only one still showing movies. It’s the only movie theater in all of booming Johnston, period.

The Rudy, in Selma, hosts a variety show these days. A Wal-Mart has taken the place of a drive-in on Brightleaf Boulevard in Smithfield.

“They just dried up. They just disappeared,” said Rudolph Howell, 83, of Smithfield, whose father built the Howell Theatre for $22,000. Work was so scarce in those days that two crews worked three days at a time on the theater to give more men jobs.

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put historic movie theaters — done in by television, theater chains, the VCR and DVDs — on its annual list of most endangered places.

Across the country, historic downtown movie theaters, typically independently owned and with fewer screens than newer multiplexes, died off, one by one. The Howell, in the heart of downtown Smithfield, has stayed in business in part by evolving with the times.

There’s air conditioning now, of course. In 1965, a fire swept through the theater, so little of the original interior remains. In the 1980s, Howell, who took over the theater from his father, divided it, so that it now has four screens, two upstairs, two downstairs, with seating for 550.

This week, the theater kicks off its daily matinees with the summer season. Today, the Howell’s projection machines, including two originals from the 1930s, are showing “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” “Star Wars: Episode II,” “Spider-Man” and “Joshua.”

But the machines have also presented stars of other eras: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers, Doris Day and Fred Astaire, to name a few.

Ava Gardner, who was born in nearby Grabtown, grew up watching movies at the Howell and the Victory theater, which used to sit across the street. Her movie “The Great Sinner” had its North Carolina premiere at the Howell in 1949.

Mickey Buffaloe, who bought the theater from Howell three years ago, has little use for nostalgia, though. He’s too busy trying to make a living, after quitting a job as a firefighter.

The main thing the Howell offers, other than first-run movies, is small-town atmosphere, he said.

“It’s just a little bit different from walking into the big multiplexes and not knowing anybody,” said Buffaloe, who lives in Wake County. He said the theater draws regulars from all over the county, and even Goldsboro and Buies Creek.

“We know them, and they know us,” he said. “Some of them, we know what they’re going to order when they walk in the door.”

So how is it that the state’s fastest-growing county in the 1990s has only one movie theater?

Michael de Sherbinin, the county’s economic development director, said that the county’s 122,000 residents are still spread out over about 800 square miles, not dense enough for another theater — yet, anyway. Many people in western Johnston go to Garner, which has a 10-screen theater, or Raleigh for movies. Two more theaters have also been proposed, in Garner and Smithfield.

Despite its history, the Howell looks pretty modern, hardwood floors and stage aside. The ground-floor theaters have been renovated recently, decked out with new carpet and curtains.

And the theater’s most interesting stories may not be those playing on the screens, but the ones told by the people who remember when movies — and the local theater — meant more than they do today.

In its heyday, the Howell was a place where people could come together to marvel over the addition of sound or color to movies or, in its earliest days, escape from the hard life beyond the theater’s walls.

In the early years, hillbilly bands played on the stage. From the time the theater opened through the ‘40s, Tuesday was jackpot night, with a weekly drawing for a chance to win from $50 to $400 — an astonishing sum in those days, which meant every movie ticket came with hope.

During the Depression, folks were so poor they couldn’t afford to get to town. So Howell’s father bought two buses and sent them out to pick up customers, a free ride included in the cost of a movie ticket. When “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was popular on the radio, the theater would broadcast the 15-minute show before rolling a movie.

Mokie W. Stancil, 81, of Smithfield, remembers selling vegetables to neighbors to earn the money for admission, once a week.

“On Saturdays, I’d usually go to the movies in the afternoon and try to get out in time to get the cows milked before it was too dark. A lot of kids went,” Stancil said.

As he grew older, he had to sell more vegetables to see a movie.

“When you got 12 years old, you were supposed to tell Mrs. Howell so she could raise the price,” Stancil said.

“Those were great days”.

kencmcintyre on September 27, 2008 at 11:48 pm

The theater site is being redesigned. Still showing first run movies, however.

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on September 28, 2008 at 12:58 am

Interior photo can be seen here.

raysson on March 12, 2009 at 4:16 pm

The theatre site has been redesigned and it is now a discount theatre after the opening of the Smithfield Outlet Mall Cinemas 10 in 2004.

The Howell is showing second-run features these days.
And is the ONLY theatre that is in business in Downtown Smithfield.

CSWalczak on January 21, 2010 at 6:34 pm

A recent article about an ownership change at the Howell: View link

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